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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

Its worn yellowish façade looked faded and weather-beaten from years of abuse at the hands of the harsh Tibetan elements. Juxtaposed to the polished ivory-white bone of its much younger counterparts, the bowl seemed to exude a sort of primeval energy, as if thousands of years of Tibetan history were contained within its brittle exterior.

But did I dare break the most sacred of western taboos, purchasing something made of human bone? Would such an act call forth the ire of the gods, cursing me for dishonouring a person’s remains, or would it, as thought in Tibetan culture, allow the person to continue to live on through use in religious rites and art?

Whatever the consequences, in that moment they were the farthest thing from my mind, as my only worry was that the dried and brittle bone would be too delicate to survive the rest of my trip through Tibet, let alone the arduous return flight home. But pushing away such questions, I began something I never would have dreamed of doing…haggling over a human skull.

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A bolt of lightning tore through the tumultuous Tibetan sky, momentarily illuminating the dirt track in front of our Landcruiser. The driver glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror, understanding fully that an uncomfortably bumpy dirt track would turn into an impassable quagmire if the storm managed to overtake us.

But amidst that darkening scene the sky in front of us told a completely different story, as dark browns mixed with rich reds and vibrant yellows to form one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen. Then, after just a moment it was all gone and our 4×4 was once again plunged into total darkness. We were racing across the high Tibetan plateau, 5000 meters above sea level, in the middle of nowhere, and our journey to the immensely spiritual Mt. Kailash had barely begun.

Little did I know when I left the sleepy little Tibetan town of Lhatse earlier that day that it would be the last time I saw a paved road for the next four or five days. While I knew that completing a three-day high-elevation hike around Kailash, one of the most religiously significant mountains in all Asia, would take sacrifice, I had little notion the sacrifices would begin days before I actually laid my eyes on the mountain itself.

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Since the People’s Republic of China entered into Tibet over 60 years ago, the communist country has faced one particular lingering issue, one that it simply can’t get control of. You see, the problem for China since its “liberation” of Tibet is that the picturesque Land of Snow nestled amongst the towering Himalayan mountains has been, unfortunately for the Chinese government, filled with Tibetans.

For years the Chinese government has tried everything it can think of to placate the Tibetan masses. They’ve tried oppressing them, killing them, humiliating them, and forcing their politico-spiritual leaders into exile, but strangely none of those tried and true methods of winning the hearts and minds of a conquered peoples has seemed to work.

However, in recent years the Chinese government has instituted a different solution to the Tibetan question, an approach that is deviously simple and devastatingly effective…they’re breeding them out.

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Over the past week I’ve taken some time to decompress and reflect on the epic tale of Lost that many of us have enjoyed over the past six years, and what I’ve come to realize is that while Lost may have left some dissatisfied, a point I’m sure won’t disappear anytime soon, it has attempted to do something that few shows have tried before, and clearly it has left the public wanting more.

One needs to look no further than the amazing amount of speculation and controversy surrounding the final credits of the finale, a sweeping shot of the airplane wreckage on the beach, a scene that sparked off an avalanche of speculation that the wreckage was really meant to tell us that the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 were dead all along.

However, with an ABC spokesperson crushing any and all speculation over the credits, we are now left with the question, what do we do now? Certainly some other show will come along that will attempt to fill our voracious appetite for conspiracy theories and our underlying quest to find the deeper meaning of our existence, but I doubt it’ll ever see the same success that Lost achieved.

The impression of Lost that I’m left with is not that I watched a show that entertained millions around the world for the past half-dozen years, but I was able to witness a show that got more people talking about religion, the afterlife, philosophy, and the meaning of existence than any religious institution, philosophy class, or new age yoga seminar ever could.

But this got me thinking.  Is that a good thing?

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The eye, what has become a powerful metaphor symbolizing not only fear and confusion but also redemption and enlightenment, slowly closes, the life ebbs from our reluctant hero Jack Shephard, and the screen fades to black. Despite the strong bittersweet taste left in my mouth at the closing of the show, few can deny that this was a fitting—if not somewhat predictable—end to the epically brilliant six year saga known as Lost.

While I don’t normally write about movies or TV shows, when a show with the breadth and depth of Lost offers a tantalizing embodiment of the name Passport for the Soul, I just have to write about it.

The brilliance of the show, for me, lay not only in the strong character development, which through its analysis of these disparate individuals gave all viewers an unexpectedly deep look into the human condition as a whole, but also in its laudable attempt at incorporating deeper religious, philosophical, and metaphysical themes into its weekly plot lines. While one of my observations has always been that Lost handles these deep philosophical truths in the same way a baby handles a rattle, unskilled and imprecise, the fact that it ventures into that sort of territory at all sets it far above its competition.

That being said, if you were waiting for some of the deeper mysteries of the Island to be revealed in the show’s series finale, you were no doubt left wanting, as the creators of the show chose to take a strong character driven approach to the finale instead of one focused on wrapping up loose ends.

What I find the most disappointing of all is not that Lost left us with so many unanswered questions, but the fact that the show seemed to shy away from answering or explaining any of the vital why conundrums. Sure, throughout the final season many of the what questions were explained—What is the smoke monster? What is Jacob? What are these particular people doing on this island? But rarely did I see the show attempt to explain its own mythology.

Sure we know that the Island can travel through time, but I wouldn’t have minded if the show would have taken a second or two to explain to me why the Island travels through time. How does that connect to its role as the paradisiacal battleground between good and evil? Why did the Man in Black become the smoke monster? That sort of thing.

The particularly bittersweet part, for me at least, is that I think I know the answer to my own questions. The producers of Lost left these sorts of why questions unanswered because they didn’t want to ruin the enduring mythology by pinpointing it with concrete answers. Lost, to be sure, has clearly become something different for almost all of its loyal viewers, and to give decisive answers would be to only ruin that sort of engaging ambiguity that always kept us coming back week after week.

In the end, the finale clearly had it moments. It was certainly a surprise to learn that despite our ongoing assumptions that the utopian sideways timeline was some alternate reality, that really all the characters were reliving the most important days of their lives in some sort of purgative spiritual Matrix-like state, having died presumably years earlier, and, the revelation that Hurley, not Jack, took over as the caretaker of the Island.

But despite all that, there simply wasn’t enough there for me to feel satisfied, evidenced by the fact that I’m sitting awake in the middle of the night with an enduring feeling of disappointment gnawing at my brain, and much like the characters of the show I find myself in Limbo, caught in the in-between. The only difference, however, is that the characters got to walk into the light, whereas I’m doomed to the eternal darkness of confusion and ignorance over the real answers to the deeper questions of Lost.

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Lying in the north of India, in what is today the province of Punjab, lies a sacred place like no other. Since ancient antiquity, a small lake called Amritsar, which means ‘Pool of the Nectar of Immortality,’ has drawn sages, mendicants, aesthetics and priests the world over, luring them with its elusive promises of enlightenment and peace. While the name that once referred to a simple and serene place of meditation has since come to refer to the temple complex built around it, and sooner still, the name for the city, the lure of the nectar of immortality offered by this holy site still remains.

While legend has it that great spiritual revolutionaries like the Buddha came to this place seeking enlightenment at the water’s edge, it was much later, only a short 500 years ago that the father of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, came to this place and discovered its gentle yet powerfully insistent draw. Spurred on by strong notions of religious equality, social egalitarianism, freedom from the harsh social and political impositions of the Hindu caste system, and a belief in the one God, Guru Nanak established this site as a place that would echo those same virtues.

As I stood on the steps of the entrance to the temple complex, a distinct feeling of intrusion washed over me. Before me stood the Golden Temple, one of the most magnificent sites that my eyes had ever beheld, a place so holy that I felt that entering this place without being a Sikh would be one of the gravest offences of all.

                           

But that is one of the amazing things about adherents to the Sikh faith, for while the Golden Temple is indeed one of the focal points of their religion, they welcome all people there with open arms. Having spent years studying and visiting religious sites around the world, I can honestly say that there are few as welcoming to outsiders as the Golden Temple.

Despite the fact that thousands of pilgrims, worshippers, and gawking tourists filled the immense complex, there was still a profound sense of peace, that this place, whether you believed the tenets of the Sikh faith or not, naturally communicated a sense of spiritual fulfillment; a place, I could clearly see, that could easily fulfill its unspoken promise of enlightenment.

Upon visiting places like the Vatican City, the solid gold Buddha of Bangkok, or even the Golden Temple, I always wrestle with the lingering feelings of disappointment. I’m disappointed not in the beauty or spiritual power of these places, for few could deny those things exist, but in what strikes me as an unfortunate misappropriation of religious wealth. How many hungry beggars could be fed with the amount of gold leaf that covers the Golden Temple? How many penniless orphans could be clothed with one gold statue from the Vatican?

However, the difference at the Golden Temple is that the Sikh community has found a way to effectively do both. As part of every pilgrims visit to the Golden Temple there is always the promise of food and water (or chia if you like), as the temple complex sports one of the largest communal kitchens (or langars) in the world. Embodying the Sikh principle of equality, the communal kitchen was established in the 16th century as a way of bringing people to together and meeting one of humanity’s most fundamental needs, nourishment.

                          

As I sat cross-legged on the floor of the great eating hall, watching the giant vats of boiling Daal (lentils) and the efficient assembly line of women making chapattis (flat bread), I couldn’t help but think that quite possibly the Sikh community in Amritsar had made me feel more at home, more at peace, and more accepted than almost any other place in the world. ..and that’s saying a lot.

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Let’s be honest here, the chances are good that you have no idea who or what the Panchen Lama is, more so who Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is and why he’s important, but as May 17th approaches, the more people who understand the plight of the Panchen Lama, the more that may be done for the cause of freedom for the people of Tibet.

You see, on May 15th, 1995, a few short weeks after his sixth birthday, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was named as the 11th Panchen Lama, the second highest spiritual and political position in Tibetan Buddhism, by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama.

While none of this may seem all that important to anyone other than Tibetan Buddhists and academics of religion, the story takes a dark turn, as on May 17th, 1995, only two days after he was divined as the next Panchen Lama, Nyima and his entire family were forcibly taken into protective custody by the communist Chinese government, and since that day no one, outside the Chinese government I would assume, has ever seen or heard from any of them.

Now as Nyima approaches his 21st birthday, it’s time again to ask the difficult questions as to his whereabouts, for even if the Chinese government was intending to protect the next Panchen Lama, they have yet to indicate what they are actually protecting him from for all these years.

The story, however, takes an even more sinister turn when you realize that the Chinese government moved quickly to name an alternate Panchen Lama, commonly known as Qoigyijabu, who at the time was a young boy of two communist party parents. It is Qoigyijabu, the Chinese government declares, who is the real and authentic Panchen Lama, a controversy that we’ll see come to its full when the current Dalai Lama dies.

You see, as the second most powerful spiritual and political ruler in Tibet, the Panchen Lama has the duty of divining the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama, meaning that if the Chinese government controls the Panchen Lama, they also control both the future spiritual leader of Tibet and the sect of Buddhism practiced there as well.

While I have yet to visit Tibet, I spent considerable time this past year in Dharamshala, a mountainous Indian city in the north of the country, home too many Tibetan refugees and the official seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Though I already knew of the plight of the Panchen Lama, the seriousness of the issue was brought to my attention as I visited with the locals in this place, many of whom are unsure of the future of their culture, religion, and homeland once the current Dalai Lama passes away.

For those that are versed in Tibetan history, it was Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, who, as a young man was first lured by the promise of power from the communist government, but then, seeing the persecution inflicted upon his people urged for Tibetan independence, who has been the primary driving force behind the continued call for Tibetan freedom from Chinese rule. Upon the death of the current Dalai Lama, there will be few left with the same passion or power to take up the Tibetan cause, and with the Chinese working to infiltrate Tibetan spiritual and political life with their own chosen Panchen Lama, the future of Tibetan culture and religion seems tenuous at best.

In the end, however, as the middle of the month comes and goes, I fear little will change. Nevertheless, I urge you all to spend a few moments considering the plight of both the Tibetan people and Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who, if still alive, has probably not enjoyed the last fifteen years of his life in Chinese protective custody.

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